Dealing with the reality of burnout

How to better recognize when burnout is approaching

Has anyone else ever had burnout creep up out of nowhere and totally wipe them out? Sometimes I can see the warning signs and make adjustments in time to avoid a major crash, but most burnouts feel like being completely blindsided by a velociraptor.

Burnout has been called the “car crash you don’t see coming.”
A few years ago, I was driving on the 101 when I was involved in an actual car accident. Approaching the exit ramp, the vehicle in front of me began indecisively straddling the line and braking intensely. On the phone with a friend, I told her, “I’ll call you back, this guy in front of me can’t decide which way he is going.” As the driver ahead of me slowed, I slowed as well, keeping my eyes locked on his brake lights. That’s when it hit me. Literally. The car behind me slammed into my Jeep.
I never saw it coming. I was so focused on what was ahead, I didn’t see what was sneaking up behind me. This is exactly how burnout has felt for me. Sudden. Intense. Unexpected. “Burnout” was recently declared a health diagnosis by the World Health Organization, and stems from improperly managed and prolonged workplace stress. They specify that “burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context…” but as we all know, burnout reaches farther than just our work. The WHO characterizes burnout in three ways: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

If the syndrome is caused by prolonged stress, then how come it feels like it sneaks up so quickly?

For me, hindsight is always 20/20. Does anyone else find this kind of clarity only when reflecting?
In entrepreneurship, you write your own rules. This means that it’s your responsibility to pay very close attention to the needs of the business, as well as the needs of the business OWNER (you!). If you’re not doing well, how will you adapt and grow your business?
This must be where that old “building the plane while flying it” idiom comes from. You won’t have this all figured out from day one, and that’s OK. You can build “burnout prevention” into your business plan as you go.
When we’re in survival mode, plowing through tasks and challenges (i.e., “the shit”), we rarely stop to notice of what else is happening. Take a break? Ha! Most business owners have never heard of taking a break because we “can’t.” Then, “surprisingly,” we’re burnt out, exhausted and unmotivated because we forgot to take care of ourselves first. There is hope. As we mature, we work to become more aware of ourselves overall. Recognizing the early signs of fatigue can become easier, and preventing burnout is possible.

Here are some of the red flags I look out for that can signal I’m nearing burnout:

  • Work-related anxiety/stress: My head feels like it’s going to burst with all my to-do’s. I’m trying to remember too much and feeling anxious.
  • Cynicism: I’m totally disenchanted by things I usually enjoy and have a bad attitude.
  • Disconnect: I’m buried in work and not giving energy to my family, friends, or self.
  • Physically tired: It’s hard to drag my weary feet out of bed and onto the floor for another day.

This is what I do when I see the red flags to try to prevent burnout and stop the bleeding:

  • Pinpoint the stressor, take a step back, evaluate, and adjust.
  • Notice when I’m not enjoying the things I love doing. Do something fun that is not work-related.
  • Self-care and mental care: This can mean many different things, depending on my needs at the moment (meditate, yoga, go outdoors, go on a date with my husband, go to a therapy session, see a play, etc.)

Although it’d be nice to wrap this up with a bow (like the “Full House” moral of the episode), the storyline of burnout doesn’t follow any rules.

I’ll probably experience burnout again. Just like I’ll probably get into another accident. Unfortunately, the chances are likely. But it’s also an opportunity to handle it better in the future.

As we learned, burnout usually comes from external sources beyond our control. So while we may not be able to prevent burnout entirely, we can get better at recognizing the signs and minimizing the impact.
Each time I experience burnout, it feels shorter and less stressful because I’m paying attention to the signs and responding (without overreacting) to get the help I need. What I do (and hope you’ll do too) when burnout does happen, is give myself some grace rather than a lecture or guilt trip. I understand that this is my body and mind telling me to slow down and pace myself.

We’ve got this.